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The courage to leave my cage
On fawning, learned helplessness, and CPTSD recovery
Complex PTSD (CPTSD) comes from experiencing trauma repeatedly, without adequate support to process it. Childhood CPTSD has the added complexity of being developmental—it affects us as we grow. Each person with childhood CPTSD has their own experience—this is mine. There are many aspects to CPTSD. In this post, I’m focusing on fawning and learned helplessness.1
This is where we talk about the “dark” in “Sparkly Dark”.
This is where I show you why little pinpricks of light mean so much to me.
This is where I try to convey why hope is like oxygen to me, and why I will never give up, even though I’m often exhausted just being alive.
Let’s do this.
Having CPTSD feels to me like being locked in a prison made up of my past, that I am too afraid to leave, because it’s all I know.
I know how to survive where I am, even if it’s hurting me. And I have no idea how to survive outside of it, because nobody ever taught me that.
My childhood didn’t just hurt me, or harm me. It left me without the knowledge of how to live a functional life. I didn’t know what functional relationships even looked like (and I’m still learning). I didn’t know what real safety felt like, let alone how to find it. I didn’t even know what love was supposed to feel like. To me, enmeshment and neglect is what I was told love was, and I internalized it, because I had no frame of reference for anything else.
I adapted to what didn’t work because it was all there was. And I made the best of it.
I am brilliant at making the best of things. And I have often been blind to how much better things could be if I just let go. But letting go of the strategies that kept me alive often feels impossible. Especially if I have no idea how else to be, or live, or love.
So I have held on to bad situations and self-destructive patterns, and hoped for better. But without a lot of support and learning, I didn’t even know what better looked like, let alone how to get there. It felt like some far off land where other people lived. It didn’t feel available to me. So I fantasized2 and coped and adapted and did what I knew how to do: endure.
But I always knew somewhere deep down that I never asked for this, and I don’t deserve it. This was done to me. I didn’t consent to this. This is not who I am. This does not define me. I will find another way. That fierce faith that something else is possible has been my guiding light for as long as I can remember.
CPTSD and learned helplessness go hand in hand.
You learn to be helpless, because doing anything other than being helpless makes it worse.
Trying to get your needs met brings danger, and a reminder that you don’t matter. So you stop asking. You stop trying to change the situation, and you put all your energy into adapting and making it work. You don’t ask for your share because you’ve learned how to make do with crumbs. You don’t look for the light because your eyes have adjusted to the dark.
People with CPTSD are incredibly resourceful. They have to be, because they have put up with the worst of human behavior when they were the most vulnerable. They have learned to endure the unendurable, to make themselves OK with what was never OK, and get by with less than what they need for a very long time.
So I know that if you have CPTSD, you are incredibly strong, resilient, and capable, even if you don’t feel that way. No matter how chaotic or lonely or unsalvageable your life looks right now, no matter what corner you have painted yourself into, no matter how exhausted you are—I know that inside you beats a heart that has been forged in fire and that dreams of more.
I feel a fierce allegiance to people with CPTSD because we never asked for this. We didn’t ask for our brains and nervous system to be warped by a world that did not make a safe place for us, let alone a warm and welcoming one.
We didn’t ask to be made into people who reproduce our own harm.
This was all done to us without our consent, and yet our brain started to form patterns that cooperate with it.
When my nervous system perceives a threat of some kind, especially within a connection I value, I start to fawn. I automatically start to smooth over differences, de-escalate conflict, and make it all OK—at the cost of my own autonomy, boundaries, and sense of reality.
I will start to turn myself into whatever it seems like the other person wants me to be in that moment. It’s not a conscious process—I will often not realize what I was doing until later.
If someone criticizes me, I’m likely to find reasons to agree with them. If someone tells me who I am, I’m likely to offer up evidence that they are right. Your reality is correct and I’ll adopt it so you will see I’m not a threat. We’re a team, and you’re in charge.
I try to see their point of view and validate it—which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it’s self-destructive when you are being gaslit or projected upon. I survive to fight another day, but I am unconsciously suppressing the urge to defend my boundaries. That inner conflict resurfaces and causes dysregulation, sometimes for days afterwards. I wake up at 3 am, wondering Why did I say that? Why didn't I stand up for myself?
When I fawn, I send the message, My needs don’t matter. Keep hurting me, I can take it. I don’t need you to care about my needs. It’s OK for you to do this to me. I’ll be OK. I’ll keep helping you and giving to you and forgiving you, because you matter and I don’t. Please don’t leave me. Please don’t make it worse.
Sometimes I feel like my mind is betraying me. But I know it’s just doing the best it can with the knowledge it has. It is stuck in a patterned response, and I can change that. It’s just a matter of rewiring my brain.
My mind doesn’t always know the cage is open now.
I have to keep reminding it, over and over and over.
I can have boundaries. I can say no.
I can stand up for myself.
I can go toward what is good for me and away from what is bad for me.
I can make choices.
I can validate myself.
I have a voice and it matters.
I can make my future different than my past.
I do not owe anyone anything.
I choose to listen to myself.
I can make up my own mind.
These statements may seem self-evident if you don’t have CPTSD. But for much of my life, they have not even occurred to me as options.
The belief that I don’t matter, I have never mattered, and I never will matter was imprinted into my nervous system. I have to fight with it to write this newsletter. I have to fight with it to complete basic self-care tasks like going to bed. I had to fight with it to leave my marriage. It’s a constant battle.
People with CPTSD are warriors who are fighting an internal battle every day of their lives. And some don’t win that battle. Some get lost in addiction, or they check out of the game. It’s exhausting. It’s debilitating.
But it’s not impossible to heal. It just takes a fuck-ton of work. Sorry, I can’t sugarcoat it. When your brain gets warped when it’s forming, it takes a lot to undo it.
But if you have CPTSD, I know that you know what hard work is. I know you are not lazy. I know you’ve been struggling to survive your whole life.
If this is your story too, I am rooting for us both.
I’m somewhere in the middle of my recovery journey. I haven’t reached solid ground yet, but I’m no longer drowning. I built myself a boat and I know the right direction to head in. I know I will get there eventually. I’m writing these words to myself as much as to you.
Wherever you are in your journey, I want you to know that every single step you take toward recovery and authenticity and healthy connection is worth it. Nothing is wasted. (Yes, even the things that I wish to God I had never done—I learned from.)
I have learned to forgive myself for the things I didn’t know how to do better, and the mistakes I didn’t know were mistakes at the time. I have worked to forgive myself for trusting the wrong people, for believing lies, for giving away my power, for ignoring my better judgment, for damaging relationships by trying desperately to meet my needs in ways that just didn't work, and for being unable to live up to my own expectations.
I have learned to give myself grace.
To have CPTSD is to be debilitated from the beginning, running a race with a handicap you didn’t know you had.
I have tried so hard to be “normal”, to keep up with everyone else, to fly with broken wings…but I can only heal as fast as I can heal. And it’s not my fault. I am not broken. I am just wounded. And I can heal. I can live as a free person, making free choices, unbound from my past. It will just take work to get there.
Dear reader, your struggle may be quite different than mine. But whatever cross you bear, it does not define you. You get to decide who you are, what matters to you, what you devote yourself to, and what you believe is possible for yourself. Your relationship with your past, present, and future is in your hands. 💚
P.S. I love comments, so feel free to chime in below!